Culture Shock Chronicles: The Canadian Edition
Life in the Great White North is more than just maple syrup, and ice hockey
Over 300,000 international students attended Canadian schools in 2016, a number that is steadily rising due to Canada’s quality colleges and universities, the availability of post-graduation work permits, and easier access to permanent resident status – a key differentiator in light of recent developments in both the UK and USA, with the former’s passage of Brexit, and the latter’s recent crackdown on immigration. Canada has strengthened its commitment to multiculturalism under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pledging specifically to make Canadian citizenship more attainable for international students.
Canada prides itself on its diversity and was, in fact, the first country to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971. Still, as any expat will tell you, a certain degree of culture shock is inevitable when living and studying in a foreign country – as welcoming and diverse as that country may be. Your culture shock in Canada will vary according to your expectations, and your familiarity with the country.
Although Canada is a primarily English-speaking country, French culture and language, are dominant in a number of areas, namely Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario. Street signs may only be in French, and administrative emails may arrive with no English translation. Adding to the complexity is the fact that French Canadians may speak French – or English – with a dialect that is foreign to both French and English natives. So communication in Canada may require brushing up on your French, your English, your ‘Franglais’ and your ear for unusual accents.
Canadian money may also seem odd to those more comfortable with Pounds, Dollars, Euros or other currencies. The Canadian dollar coin is known as a “loonie,” a $2 coin is a “twoonie,” and the smallest denomination of paper money is a $5 bill. There are no pennies, and both nickels and dimes are silver, with 10-cent coins larger than their 5-cent counterparts. Pricing in Canadian grocery stores and pharmacies may also be confusing to international visitors, with fresh produce and personal care products costing considerably more than they might across the border in America. Restaurants, too, may seem expensive depending on the current exchange rate, and your country of origin. Many students have difficulty adapting to the peculiarities around added tax, which differs from province to province, and is not factored into the prices of items on the shelf.
Unfamiliar Climate and Environment
Many newcomers to Canada are anxious about the climate and the weather, wondering if they’ll be able to handle the arctic temperatures and whiteout blizzards. But how extreme is the weather, really? Your perception will all depend on the country you call home. Central and Northern Canada are subject to arctic and subarctic climates, which explains why these regions are sparsely populated and host no major colleges and universities (thankfully). Densely populated cities like Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto experience milder temperatures, however, winters can still be quite harsh - with snowfall averaging from 80 to 130 inches a year!
If you’re at all concerned about wildlife, have no fear - bear and bison sightings are rare, but students do become accustomed to living in close proximity to raccoons, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, the occasional moose, and – of course – loons, the species depicted on Canadian $1 and $2 coins. All in all, rest assured that you’re no more likely to be buried in an avalanche or abducted by wolves than you would be in Europe or America – but you will need protective snow gear, and an appreciation for indigenous animals.
What about Canadian cuisine? English, American, and French dishes will be easy to find. Asian cuisine and French-Asian fusion are also readily available - as are pizza, curries and just about any other international cuisine you could yearn for. For the adventurous, Canada has native dishes such as poutine, a caloric combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. Breakfast fans will rejoice over the quality and variety of maple syrup - of which Canada is the world’s largest producer. Other Canadian snacks include butter tarts, beaver tails (fried dough pastries, individually hand stretched to resemble a beaver’s tail), Nanaimo bars and salmon jerky.
The most pressing concern for most immigrants to a new country is people: How will the people compare to the people back home? Luckily, in Canada, visitors generally find people to be friendly, straightforward, helpful, and polite. It would be hard to ask for a better place to study: A place where citizens are cheerful, orderly, outdoorsy and modest.
So pack up your parka and binoculars, your French phrase book, and an open mind. As foreign as Canada may seem at the start, it is one of the safest, most inclusive and livable countries you could possibly choose for your study abroad experience.
About the Author: Julia Clinger is an American writer who has lived in Germany and Switzerland. She is currently an advertising copywriter in Boston, Massachusetts.